Gadgetwise: A Rookie Learns to Fly a Drone


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Prashant Rao with his DJI Phantom 3 drone in Battersea Park in London. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

LONDON — My wife, Alexa, has made something of a profession out of getting me great birthday presents. Over the years, her gifts have included an old Sports Illustrated with a hologram of Michael Jordan on the cover and a photography tour of a particularly photogenic part of southern China.

So for my most recent birthday, I had no idea what to expect when she handed me a large box. Inside, I found a new drone.

The only problem: I had to learn how to fly it.

This may not be easy for many people. First, there is the matter of figuring out the capabilities of the drone. Consumer drones come in different sizes and prices. You can build your own drone, attach a GoPro camera and customize a range of options. Or you can get one that works right out of the box.

Flying the drone is daunting. There are regulations to know. In the United States, because the industry is relatively new, federal rules are sometimes at odds with regulations set by states and local authorities.

In Britain, where I live, rules for flying hobbyist drones are mercifully more straightforward, and the Civil Aviation Authority has taken steps to translate often dense guidance into easier-to-understand language. In July, it released “The Dronecode” and has published an animated video summarizing the rules.

Drone flying: a short guide Video by UKCAA

There is also the safety of others to consider. British aviation authorities recorded 39 “airprox” incidents, or aerial near-misses, in 2015, and those are just ones that involve a drone and another aircraft. I did not want to make headlines.

But there are ways to ease into it. Commercial drone operators and those taking professional videos can take short courses to ensure they know what they are doing. For novices like myself, YouTube videos abound, offering tips and explainers.

“Not everybody who can control things on the ground has 3-D spatial awareness,” said Jonathan Carter, a director of the Aerial Academy, which conducts courses to help professional drone users get licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority. Mr. Carter, who first strapped a compact camera to a single-rotor drone in 2010 out of curiosity, said the courses could be completed in as little as a week and cost about $1,600.

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